Open Theism and Divine Immorality

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One of the arguments open theists give for the view that God doesn't know the future exhaustively is that several biblical passages seem to indicate God changing his mind. This is indeed how the text is worded in several places. In Genesis 18, God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, but Abraham pleads with him to spare it even if there are ten righteous people there. As it turns out, there's just one, Abraham's nephew Lot. So God still destroys it, but he spares Lot. You might get the impression from the passage that God wasn't originally going to save Lot (although the text never says that).

Several times during the wilderness wanderings, you have similar events. After the golden calf incident in Exodus 32, Moses intercedes for Israel more than once within a few chapters. Each time, the text seems to say that God changes his plan about what he intends to do with Israel. First he intends to destroy all Israel and then make a new people out of Moses as he had done with Abraham before. Then God agrees to spare Israel, but he won't be with them in the same kind of manner as he had been (with the pillar of fire and cloud). Then he eventually agrees to be with them as he had before. There are a couple more shortened accounts of similar things with the rebellions in Numbers, and other examples appear throughout the Bible. 

Now there's always been a way to take these passages that's consistent with classical theism. God knew what he intended to do all along, and that never changed, but the language about God changing his mind is really not about God having one intent and then changing it. It's about God's policy during one time being one thing and then the policy during the next time being something else, and what someone does at some time in between is God's reason for having a different policy. So God's policy in Exodus 32 is that he's telling Moses a plan (one he never intends to carry out, because he knows how Moses will respond) and then by the end of Exodus 34 is telling Moses his real plan, but he frames it in language Moses can understand so that Moses can see that he's really interacting with God. Describing it in atemporal language or explaining the final result before Moses has been brought to where God wants him is counterproductive. It doesn't allow Moses to experience the succession of states that he needs to experience.

But I'm not interested here in arguing exegetically for the traditional interpretation, even though I think it's the best way to make sense of these texts, often because of signs within the texts but especially in the light of the wider scriptures. What prompted me to write about these passages is something that occurred to me as I was reading one of these kinds of passages in Numbers last week. Look at the examples of God changing his mind that open theists claim as evidence for open theism. It their interpretation is true, then God initially has some plan he wants to carry out, and Abraham, Moses, or some other righteous figure comes along to convince God that his plan is bad. It violates God's character in some of these instances, particularly in the case of God saying he'll go against his promises to Abraham and destroy Israel. That's Moses' very argument. So if the open theistic interpretation of these passages is correct, it isn't just the metaphysical status of God's nature that they're revising. It isn't just the issue of God's exhaustive foreknowledge that's at stake in this debate. If the open theistic interpretation is correct, then God has some pretty seriously immoral tendencies that these wonderful people like Abraham and Moses then come along and help God to overcome by standing up against God's evil.

I think, then, that most classical theists who complain about open theism's biblical revisionism are missing the most revisionary aspect of open theism. It's not that open theists' view of God contradicts the plain statements of scripture (although I think it does) in order to take narrative passages told from a phenomenological perspective as if they are reporting the most basic metaphysical reality in careful, philosophical language. (If we did that with another passage, we'd end up with the view that the sun goes around the earth.) It's that open theistic interpretation of the very passages most commonly used to argue for open theism make God out to be thoroughly immoral in a way that it requires human righteousness to temper God's passions. Doesn't this get the Christian gospel upside-down?


I'd reject open theism for the same reason you do because of its implications about God's nature.

Now I don't think atemporality is a good fit for these passages because it implies when God is having a conversation he's really just toying with his prophets in a trite way.

I think these examples point to Christ as the only adequate intercessor for man. Moses interceded for his people because of their idolatry and still a plague came upon them. Moses interceded for their disobedience but still all died in the desert. Abraham interceded for Sodom but only Lot and his family escaped. When David interceded for Israel after his sin and still 70,000 men died.

In each of these cases the judgment of God was softened but not averted because of the intercession of a Godly man. So God's initial purpose occurred in each instance (judgment). This points to the imperfect intercessory power of even the men God favors but the perfection of Christ's intercession.

Christ can intercede to remove condemnation, punishment and judgment where prophets could only lessen or delay these things.

Intercession as principle suggests Christ can alter the manner in which God's purpose is fulfilled. I wouldn't characterize that as changing God's mind.

Open Theism site slammed into this one.

Yes, atemporality is as much against the phenomenological feel of these passages as simple foreknowledge or an unchanging divine character is. But those require viewing God as immoral. I'm not sure atemporality is any more against the phenomenological feel of these passages than any other metaphysical view on which God has exhaustive knowledge of what's future to us. God's one act over all time just does what God being at different times would do. In one case God does one thing that manifests itself at different times, and in the other God knows how all of history will go but has to wait until it happens to enact the various parts of his eternal plan. The first view fits better with Ockham's Razor, but they appear phenomenologically equivalent from our perspective.


Here's an option for the open theist that doesn't seem to involve a commitment to God having an immoral character.

Consider the Sodom and Gomorrah case:
Suppose the value of wiping out Sodom and Gomorrah is a positive 1000 hedons. But the value of not wiping it out in response to the request of a faithful servant is 1100 hedons. (Ignore the crude utility calculations - it's for illustrative purposes)

There are a number of goods that are acheived if God changes his mind in response to the request of a faithful servant. There is the value of responding to a petitionary prayer. There is the value of strengthening the relationship with that faithful servant etc...It's possible that NOT wiping out Sodom and Gomorrah BECOMES the best option only when a faithful servant requests it.

That's an option for open theism, right?

Rey, those are interesting responses. I'm glad the leaders of the open theist movement have at least had a chance to try to deal with this argument. I'm not sure their responses are successful. I see several ways to go that they're suggesting, not all of which are compatible with each other, but I don't think any of them will help motivate using this and related passages for evidence of open theism without raising serious problems (beyond just the problems raised by open theism itself, which I consider serious enough on their own).

I think Dean is wrong about the arguments of Moses not being moral. They do rely on God's character and promises. He says Moses is just trying to lessen the blow, but he specifically refers to the promise to Abraham. He says Moses can't be referring to that promise, because God had just said that he'd fulfill that promise through Moses. That's right, but I think the promise is more expansive than just the immediate one to Abraham. It became fleshed out in time through the line of promise in each generation, first singling out Isaac among Abraham's sons, then Jacob among Isaac's, but by the time of Moses you have twelve tribes who are all equally part of the covenant that's already been initiated. They broke it, but there were promises for each tribe. See the divinely-inspired blessing through Jacob to his sons (and grandsons in the case of Joseph's sons) in Genesis 48-49.

Sanders' takes God to be responding to Moses' character rather than to any argument (and Rice's proposal is similar). But the classical view says that already. On the classical view, what distinguishes God's actions toward Moses and Israel before the intercession and after the intercession is Moses' intervention, which displays a certain character and understanding of the covenant promises. But the classical view can say this without taking the human perspective so definitively that God is literally changing his moral views, character, or intentions in the long run. So if you're going to allow the character of Moses to be the deciding factor, that doesn't leave much room for using the passage to argue for open theism. The classical view can say that too without open theism. What Hasker says has the same problem, and Boyd's response is even closer to the classical view.

Sanders also suggests that Moses' reasoning was actually wrong. God was under no obligation from his promises to Abraham and to Moses to carry out those promises with this exact group of people. While that's true as far as it goes, it would be a violation of some of what he promised to wipe out all the tribes and start again with Moses. Again, you can't see this in isolation from the promises given to Israel as a whole, including those to individual tribes.

It seems to me that God in some way is both atemporal and temporal throughout the Bible. Certainly if we accept the physicality of Moses seeing God and other examples.

I don't see how the creator of reality is necessarily limited by the logic or reason that he created. Contradictory statements are just a relic of creation not a principle that reaches above God.

I think God is restrained by his character but that is difficult to apply in specific situations let alone to the manner in which he chooses to interact with time.

Perhaps we ought to read God's interactions with men as they are described in Bible as opposed to shoehorning them awkwardly into ill-fitting theology.

Andrew, that's possible, I suppose, if God is a utilitarian. An open theist utilitarian might avail themselves of such an explanation for all such cases, if all of these instances are just verging on the edge of expected utility in exactly that way. But as I've already argued, I don't think it fits with all of these cases. Moses in particular argues from God's character and promises.

EGS, I don't see how what Moses saw says anything about temporality or atemporality. What Moses saw was an effect of God's influence in a particular location at a particular time. That's consistent with believing God to be outside space and time, with believing God to be outside space but in time, or with believing God to be within space and time.

Logic is part of the very nature of God's being. I don't think God is an irrationalist. God couldn't make contradictions be true or make something both follow from the nature of something and yet not be true of it. God could make 1+1=3. What God created is our ability to reason, not the laws of logic themselves. Those are necessarily truths.

The issue here isn't truths of logic, though. It's moral truths and consistency with God's own nature and promises. In this case, Moses gives an argument, and God seems to accept it and acts accordingly. So even if humans can often get it wrong, God seems to treat Moses as if he had gotten it right.

Perhaps we ought to read God's interactions with men as they are described in Bible as opposed to shoehorning them awkwardly into ill-fitting theology.

The problem is that any interpretation involves a theological conception. It might be an open theistic one. It might be a classical theistic one. It might involve a temporal or atemporal view of God. Not every interpretation involves a view on every theological issue, but it's hard to intepret these passages without some view or some range of possible views that allow for acceptable interpretations. I agree that we shouldn't generally get out theology from what seems right to us and then read all of scripture in light of it. But what I'm cautioning against here is reading some passages in a way that seems to be at their face value when that's not the only way to take them and that way of taking them also seems to be contrary to more clear statements in scripture. I don't see how that point requires shoehorning passages awkwardly into ill-fitting theology.


That's why I was reluctant to use the utility calculations. God need not be a utilitarian for the response to work. All that needs to be true is that the following two propositions are true.

(A) It's better for God to destroy the cities when no faithful servant requests they be saved.

(B) It's better for God not to destroy the cities when a faithful servant requests that they be saved.

Differences in utility value could be a Utilitarian explanation of the truth of (A) and (B), but the truth of (A) and (B) are compatible with non-utilitarian moral theories.

With regard to Moses appealing to God's character and promises...

You defended classical theism by saying that God would allow a person to engage with him in a way that appeared to the person as if they were interacting with God temporally, and that it would be counterproductive to give Moses the full complicated story.

Can't the open theist say that something similar is going on when God changes his mind in response to Moses request. Moses appealed to God's character to change his mind, and so God changed his mind - but not because Moses reminded him that God's character demands it. The open theist can say that God doesn't give the full story about the change in his mind for the same sorts of reasons you say that God doesn't give the full story about how atemporal interaction works.

(btw my security code began with '666' - maybe I'm supposed to shut up now)

Yes, the open theist can say something similar. What I'm saying is that, once they do that, open theism isn't doing a lot of work in making sense of the passage, since you can give a very similar response without open theism.

Jeremy, the nature of God implies logic emanates from Him but my background in math makes me extremely hesitant to say that God's character of logic is identical and as limited as our logical laws. This type of thing is dealt with in higher math (although it is not my specialty).

If you hold to the doctrine that any appearance of action or change on the part of God is a 'trick' I don't see how you could be convinced otherwise.

my background in math makes me extremely hesitant to say that God's character of logic is identical and as limited as our logical laws.

I'm not suggesting that, just that things that really are logically and mathematically true are necessary truths, even if they're derived from more basic ones.

If you hold to the doctrine that any appearance of action or change on the part of God is a 'trick' I don't see how you could be convinced otherwise.

I'm not sure what you mean. Did I use that sort of language? It doesn't sound like how I'd describe any view I hold.

It seemed like you were explaining away instances were the Bible describes God as changing his mind. A simple reading of the intercession between Moses and God implies, the Israelites were covered over by God's favor of Moses and had a milder judgment.

Now if God had simply alluded to a course of action I'd agree with you, but God said explicitly that he would destroy the Israelites and start over with Moses. Was God insincere in his plan or did he change his mind because of Moses' intercession?

It seems to make more sense if we try to reconcile the text's plain meaning to other scripture and only failing that to "explain away" what seems to contradict theology.

As far as necessary truths I don't believe these "truths" exist independent of God.

I'm not trying to be difficult here but I don't see the danger in accepting that God changed the judgment to fall on the Israelites because of Moses' faith and intercession.

A simple reading of the intercession between Moses and God implies, the Israelites were covered over by God's favor of Moses and had a milder judgment.

Yes, and why isn't it possible that this was God's plan all along? Several of the philosophers and theologians at the page Rey linked to admitted that this could have been God's plan all along. They just didn't want to think that God knew Moses would respond as he did. But it's perfectly consistent with the passage to think God did know how Moses would respond.

Now if God had simply alluded to a course of action I'd agree with you, but God said explicitly that he would destroy the Israelites and start over with Moses. Was God insincere in his plan or did he change his mind because of Moses' intercession?

He made a proposal of what he would do. If Moses hadn't interceded, he may have done something much more drastic than he did. But knowing how Moses would respond, he could make such a proposal knowing that he would soften his approach after Moses interceded.

As for changing his mind, it depends what you mean. Samuel uses this expression twice in the same chapter when dealing with King Saul, once to say that God is not like a human and doesn't change his mind, the other to say that God has changed his mind. If the same author (or editor) can allow what seems like contradiction to appear so close, there must be at least two different things that this expression can mean. (It's also worth noticing that the statement that God doesn't change his mind is actually a quote from the book of Numbers.)

As far as necessary truths I don't believe these "truths" exist independent of God.

I never said they did. Anything that follows necessarily from God's existence is a necessary truth, given that God is a necessary being.

I'm not trying to be difficult here but I don't see the danger in accepting that God changed the judgment to fall on the Israelites because of Moses' faith and intercession.

It depends on what you mean by changing the judgment. If it's the way I described it, where God's response after Moses' intervention is because of Moses' intervention but foreknown by God and in his eternal plan, then there's no problem. If it involves God being surprised by events he couldn't predict, I can think of lots of worrying implications.

Honestly, even the way the Exodus 32 passage is written implies a dual purpose in God's proposal.

I mean, why would God now refer to Israel as Moses's people, the ones Moses brought out of Egypt (when in earlier passages He constantly calls them My people and subsequently described as whom He brought out of Egypt) if not to say "Moses, time for you to speak on behalf of the people I've put you in charge of. You were afraid to speak alone to Pharoah so I had to make Aaron your mouthpiece but now here, Aaron is one of those below. What will you say, Moses?"

Of course, I'm really reading way too much into it with that last paragraph but there is a sense of Intention. (Who knows, it could just as easily be an intention of God writing off Israel and putting them in someone else's hands but that strikes me odd for a creator that is concerned with hairs on heads and sparrows).

Now if that intention is on a set future or that there are two possible futures either one completely perfect in God's dealing, I don't know.

This tends to confirm something which I wrote recently: "Intercessory prayer is hard to reconcile with any systematic theology."

St. Augustine made the point that in God, there's no change, there's no pause, there's no time. God has existed eternally -- willing everything eternally & speaking all words eternally. In other words, God doesn't speak one word at the time or thinks one thought at the time. God thinks everything, speaks everything, and wills everything eternally - because otherwise, he would be mutable & subject to change.
Book 11/Confessions.

The Confessions passage is best for explaining Augustine's view of time and human experience of it. I think the best prentation of divine timelessness is in City of God 11.21. It's more succinct and more careful than the theological side of the Confessions passage.

I know what people mean when they speak of “Classical theism.” What they mean is, Latin theology in the tradition of Augustine, through the scholastics and carried by and large into Protestant orthodoxy. I am just not clear on why that gets the label it does. When you speak of atemporality for instance you seem to be picking out the Boethian/Augustinian notion. That’s fine, but there is more than one notion of atemporality out on the market.

The underlying worry seems Platonic. Change and plurality implies a defect for Platonism. If God is at the top of the scale of being then he is one and any alteration implies plurality and hence a defect. Further, Plato argues in the early books of the Republic that since the goods are good and cannot give off any false appearance, any text representing the gods as being less than good either has to be edited or reinterpreted. This is pretty much the strategy employed here. God’s life is one unlimited present. The biblical material is then adapted to it. (If that’s “classical theism” then Plotinus, Proclus and Porphyry were classical theists.) Consequently a succession or plurality of moments will imply a defect.

This is not to say that the Open Theists aren’t Platonic as well. They have simply moved God down the chain of being a few notches to something like a Platonic daemon.

Of course it seems far simpler to me if we are to say that God is timeless that he doesn’t exist at a present either and strip the Boethian view of the remaining temporality. Here we avoid all the worries of Wolterstorff. I think that the Open Theists are on the right track to suggest that God has multiple good options open to him. What they miss is that this doesn’t imply a lack of power or defect in the divine essence. What it does imply is that the use of that divine power which is always a power in God’s possession can be hypostatically directed to different things. So a change in mind doesn’t imply a change in essence. On this view, which maps in the rough nicely onto the Eastern Orthodox view, we can get what we want from both views without any of the major drawbacks. Or so I’d argue.

When I use the term 'classical theism' in contrast with open theism, I am simply referring to the view that God's knowledge of the future is exhaustive. Some who hold this are atemporalists about God, while others are not.

As for atemporality, the Boethian notion and the Anselmian notion are a bit different, but I don't think it makes much difference to what I'm talking about here. I don't think the difference between atemporal and temporal views of God makes any difference here.

Now I don't think what leads most classical theists to take God to be morally good in perfect way derives from any Platonic notion. Most classical theists haven't even read Plato or been influenced by much philosophy. They simply read their Bible and see what it says about God. God is perfectly good. It's extremely hard to fit the idea that God might do something immoral into the pages of the Bible. You have to do much more damage to the text than what classical theists have to say in interpreting these "God changing his mind" passages.

Now some classical theists who are philosophers will also give philosophical arguments for classical views about God. It might also be that some of them give arguments like the one you give. But that doesn't mean it's their basis, and it doesn't mean that anyone giving such an argument is a classical theist. The neo-Platonists clearly were not, as Augustine would be quick to correct you on.

Open theists don't derive their philosophical view from Plato as much as from Aristotle's sea battle passage (an argument that I think Aristotle ends up rejecting when he shows its ridiculous consequences as he discusses it). I also see its antecedents in the ancient world in Alexander of Aphrodisias and Cicero.

I don't see how the idea that God has multiple good options open to him requires any view on God's foreknowledge or sovereignty. It's a view about which goods it would be morally ok for God to seek. Aquinas seems to think that God has options for which world to actualize.

I'm really at a loss with respect to your last paragraph. I'm not sure what the view is even supposed to be.

Perhaps I am wrong, but it seemed that you were using the term “classical theism” to denote simultaneity. Granted that the Boethian and Anselmian notions are not coextensive but for the purposes of discussing Open Theism not much that I can see turns on that difference.
The ways that moral perfection gets cashed out in the history of philosophical theology most certainly is Platonic by and large, even if some people are unaware of this fact. Moreover, the underlying metaphysics guides the interpretation so as to rule out any change since change and plurality implies imperfection. I think a grasp on the metaphysics will make its guiding role clearer. Augustine in fact shares the same general notion of divine being with the Platonists, and plenty of friendly witnesses, including Augustine could be brought out to make this plain. Gilson, who was certainly no enemy of Augustine indicates that Augustine’s notion of divine being remained throughout his life fundamentally “pagan.”
I am familiar with Aristotle’s arguments against future tensed propositions having a truth value, but that says nothing as to the metaphysics of Open theism, which is still fundamentally Platonic despite their insistence to the contrary. Cicero and Alexander are both working with the same fundamental dialectic, they just move to one end of it. One either hardens freedom or softens divinity.
If there are multiple goods this goes some way in distinguishing knowledge and will in God. That is part of the problem as I see it on the Augustinian model. Secondly if there are multiple goods to select between, the dialectic isn’t between God choosing a single good and a single bad action. One can preserve the traditional moral standing of God in the case of Sodom for example. Divine activity isn’t necessarily singular.
As for Aquinas, he does say such things, but if you look at his most extended discussing of divine power and creation in QDP 6, its obvious he can’t answer the problem. For if God’s act existence is necessary and his act of creation is identical in every way as Aquinas says with his act of existence, then creation will be necessary as well. The other ways in which God "could" will himself are then not open to him. See Hughes, On a Complex Theory of a Simple God. As for my last paragraph read some Ps. Dionysious or the Cappadocians, specifically the latter's works against Eunomius.

Perhaps I am wrong, but it seemed that you were using the term “classical theism” to denote simultaneity.

I'm not sure where you'd get that idea.

Plato has certainly influenced moral philosophy, including how moral philosophers discuss God. But I don't think the ordinary Christian is nearly as influenced by Plato as by the Bible.

Augustine explicitly contrasts his view of divine being with that of the neo-Platonists. That's in fact the main place where he thinks they get it wrong. He regularly speaks of how they fail to capture some crucial elements of God when they say things that he does think amount to gesturing in the right direction of God. They just don't get it remotely right, as he sees it (and I would agree).

I'm not sure at all why you think any of this stuff is Platonic. Plato hardly discusses anything like freedom, and he had no notion of a will. That first appears in Augustine. But I'm still unsure what you're really saying, and I don't know what some of your terms are supposed to mean. I'm thinking particularly in your second-to-last paragraph here.

I haven't read QDP so I can't comment on that. But it doesn't seem to me to follow from divine simplicity that God's actions have to result necessarily from God's essence. Why couldn't God just have made a choice about how to do things, where multiple options would have been possible?

As for Platonic influence, I am not concerned with the “ordinary Christian.” They don’t know much of anything usually about where their ideas came from. Entire traditions on the other hand are another matter.

Augustine chides the Platonists for two reasons. First, because so much of his own system is taken from theirs and so he has to distance himself. For example, Augustine never repudiates the Platonic view in a cosmic soul. Second, he chides them for details but on the main he agrees with them on the notion of divine being.

The Platonic tradition doesn’t cease with Plato. There are scads of Platonists and not a few of them become influential on Christian theology. Plotinus or Proclus come to mind quite easily. And they had plenty to say on such matters as freedom and the will, especially in relation to deity.

As for Aquinas, if the good simply is God, and God is simple, what alternative goods are there for God to select between do you think? The answer is none. For Aquinas, God wills himself as the end of all his actions. He tries to get out of this problem by arguing that there are many modes or ways in which God could will his own goodness, but if God is a singular activity, then any particular mode qua act is identical with this essence and hence identical in its modality with the divine essence. The Protestant Scholastics by and large adopt this Thomistic schema as can be seen in say Turretin’s discussion of the matter.

Here's an easy example of morally equivalent situations. God creates spacetime and then has to decide whether the planet with human life will be in a certain location or two feet to the left of that location, and no moral difference will occur as a result of those two options. How does divine simplicity provide an automatic answer to such a question? Either would seek God as the end equally well.

I don't think Aquinas equates God's actions with God's essence. It's God's existence that's identical with God's essence. Doesn't he in fact state that God's actions are contingent? God didn't have to create, for instance. God could have created a bette rworld than this one.

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